After its launch in Dublin, Conor McFall attended the launch of Jacobin’s 1916 issue in the Black Box. Here he offers a breakdown of what went down and some thoughts.
Monday 21st March saw the Belfast launch of Jacobin Magazine’s latest edition, which is focused on the 1916 Easter Rising and the states that formed in its wake. Jacobin is an American quarterly which first went to print in 2011 with the mission statement of bringing Marxist ideas to a younger generation. Hosted in the Black Box, this was the second launch event for this 21st edition of the magazine, following on from a similar launch in Dublin’s Liberty Hall. Upon entering the venue I was somewhat surprised at the age group of the audience, given the target demographic of the publication. However, the tables soon filled with younger faces as the 7pm start time approached. Of course, as is typical of such events, it was more like 7.30 before the speakers took to the stage. They were People Before Profit councillor Gerry Carroll and Tommy McKearney, former republican hunger striker and author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament. Communist Party of Ireland activist Kerry Fleck was an unfortunate last minute pull-out. Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin’s Editor, took to the stage for an introduction, briefly explaining the magazine’s aim of presenting Marxist ideas in an accessible manner. In explaining the rationale for an American based publication devoting an entire issue to Ireland, Sunkara opined that Connolly was a somewhat overlooked figure internationally and that he belonged in the pantheon of the left alongside his Second International comrades such as Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. With this the panel discussion, on ‘The legacy of the Easter Rising and contemporary relevance of the socialist republic’, got underway.
Carroll opened his speech by placing the 1916 rebellion in its international context; at the height of the First World War, around 18 months before the October Revolution. He pointed to the unease of the Irish Government when it came to the commemorations, with an official video released by the state featuring Bob Geldof and the British monarch but none of the actual figures of the Rising itself. This, he explained, was because Ireland today is in a period of upheaval. The two and a half party system has become fractured and is decaying, the marriage referendum has shown that a new generation of Irish citizens are breaking away from the stifling traditionalism of the past and protests over water charges are a sign of growing anger at neo liberal economic management. In a period where Ireland is once again being reshaped, establishment forces to not want to emphasise the power of popular rebellion.
Carroll defined the three most important aspects of the Rising as such; it was the first blow against imperialism in Europe which triggered further rebellions elsewhere, it was a blow against the British Empire which had committed atrocities on a global scale and it was the first chain in the sequence of the Irish Revolution. However, Carroll also highlighted the failure of the left to shape what came after the rebellion. Although direct action by workers such as the Limerick Soviet, the Belfast General Strike of 1919 and the growth of the women’s movement initially pointed to some momentum for the left, what ultimately emerged from the revolutionary period was a partition between a reactionary Catholic state on one hand and a repressive Orange state on the other. Finishing on a hopeful note, Carroll described the decline of the political establishment in the South and the perma-crisis of Stormont in the North as an opportunity to face down neo liberalism and establish a workers’ republic where all have a stake.
The major theme of McKearney’s speech was that people must take the future into their own hands. This, he states, is the lesson of the 1916 Rising. Seeking to bring a class interpretation to the rebellion, McKearney described the politics of the rebel leaders; Pearse had sympathy for the working poor and Connolly sought to move society in opposition to WWI. As Carroll mentioned before, McKearney condemned the “hypocrisy” of David Ford for criticising the violence of the Easter Rising while commemorating the imperial violence of the First World War. He argued that, although nobody wanted violence, it was at times unavoidable. The events of 1916 however, did prevent conscription in Ireland, thus saving thousands of lives.
Like Carroll, McKearney drew comparison between the context of the Rising and the situation in contemporary Ireland. Describing the events of 1922 as a “counter-revolution”, he emphasised the need for a strong working class collective to maintain any progress that is made. This involved being honest with Unionists about the intention to overthrow capitalism. Drawing further connection between 1916 and today, McKearney said that imperialism is still “bringing its forces to bear on poor people” and thus the struggle against it must continue. He described Ireland as having a triple-lock of imperialism; Britain, the EU and the United States. He concluded by identifying a changing landscape in Ireland in which people are resentful of the status quo and, that as people realise that Stormont cannot provide a secure future, the left must shape this resentment.
Following the speeches, the night concluded with a brief Q&A session in which the upcoming EU referendum was the hot topic. I asked the speakers how they felt the left should approach this and both responded by saying that a progressive case for leaving the EU must be stated. McKearney emphasised the importance of dismantling both the EU and the UK as imperialist power structures. Overall, this was a successful and engaging event which did well to promote the magazine (which itself, guest edited by Ronan Burtenshaw, is a remarkably impressive edition which I recommend highly). The crowded room was an encouraging sign that there is a serious appetite for a left-wing alternative to the dreary wonkery that passes for ‘political commentary’ in this city, as well as displaying the importance of public engagement in building an audience for such a medium.
Conor McFall is a Masters level History student at Queens University Belfast, with a particular interest in politics and ideology in contemporary Britain. He is also a minor hack in SU politics. He can be found on Twitter @ConorMcFall